The funnel, or cone, is a principle that can be used to keep writers on track as their novel progresses both in terms of character and plot growth. Imagine a paper funnel, or cone, and view it side on.
From this perspective, visualise the large, left-hand opening of the funnel to be the start of your novel. Then, moving from left-to-right, the diminishing funnel is your novel progressing. Naturally, the right-hand point is the end.
The idea is simple and abstract. The funnel provides you, as a writer, with an ever reducing set of constraints that should relate to your character. Whilst these constraints should not prevent your character from growing, or experiencing a wide character arc, they should prevent you from damaging your character in terms of believability.
At the beginning of your novel, you have the ability to dream up whatever you wish for your character – she could be a pirate, a scientist, an acrobat or even an amoeba! At this stage you have an unlimited number of promises that you can make to your readers. However, as soon as you begin to put pen to paper, the funnel constraints automatically begin to lock you in. From this point onward, it becomes more difficult to present brand new information to the reader.
For example, if you introduce your character as a mild mannered, gentile soul you shouldn’t really have him using dual Uzi 9mm hand guns suddenly half-way through the novel. Without any real foreshadowing, this would place your character far outside the boundaries of the funnel and risk turning the reader off.
Whilst it is possible to achieve this, you should trickle the hints / information slowly to the reader to be able to maintain believability and, thus, remain within the constraints of the funnel. The further out of the funnel, and the length of time your character exists outside of the funnel, affects the believability of your character. However, if, by the end of the novel (and the end of the funnel), your character is still outside the funnel, then you may fall foul of the old deus ex machina syndrome to pull things back in.
For those who don’t know what this term means, it is a breach of plot believability introduced at the end of a novel to tidy things up; think of your protagonist waking up – it was all a dream! Deus ex Machina
One quick point I want to add is that the funnel can be extended to include plot. However, this can be considered dangerous if not managed properly. With plot, the funnel still has a start and end, but it sits over the top of the character funnel and allows a higher-level of constraints to be available outside of the character.
The benefit of this is that it allows you to suspend belief of your characters as long as you remain within the constraints of your plot; a teenage boy flying around his bedroom is somewhat fanciful as it stands, but if the plot puts him on a world where everyone can fly from puberty onwards, it remains believable.
The disadvantage is that if it is done too often, or for too long, then your characters fail to grow properly and end up being driven on by what the plot demands of them
To finish, I’m going to mention a couple of films that I’ve watched recently as examples;
Good: Falling Down. If you watched the first five minutes of the film, then the last five, you’d consider the character unbelievable. However, the film introduces scenarios that break down the will, and normality, of the protagonist which allows him to exists, for times, outside of the character funnel. But I think that the plot funnel manages those spikes well as it portrays an extreme, yet believable, vision of a bad day at work.
Bad: The Expendables 2. Too many times our heroes face sudden death only to have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris pop up out of nowhere to save the day. To pour salt on our wounds, Chuck Norris states on a number of occasions that “I only fight alone” but we often see him fighting alongside the Expendables. Believability is (pardon the pun) blown all out of proportion in this film and we find it difficult to see any characterisation beyond the real-life actors – they may as well had just used their real names.
Note: some people would suggest that, after watching the first Expendables movie, introducing famous action stars in cameo roles would fall within the plot funnel. However, I would argue that a viewer would need to have seen the first movie to understand that those expectations have been set.